Otis Blackwell (songwriting; born February 16, 1932, died May 6, 2002)
Otis Blackwell’s songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee and many others. The prolific Blackwell copyrighted over a thousand songs, and it’s been estimated that material written and cowritten by him has accounted for the sales of 185 million records.
Blackwell was an African-American songwriter and performer whose material resonated with the R&B-smitten rockers from Memphis. Presley had great success with a string of songs from Blackwell, including “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Return to Sender.” The first two of these had the longest runs at Number One among all of his 167 charting singles. The success of “Don’t Be Cruel” was a major step for the rising rock and roller. Paired with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” this double-sided smash made him a superstar in 1956 and remained the biggest single of his career. It was a massive crossover hit that topped the pop, country and R&B charts.
Soon after came “All Shook Up,” another American chart-topper that also became the first of 17 Number One singles for Presley in the U.K. On the strength of these blockbusters, Blackwell wound up working for Elvis Presley Music, whose offices were at 1650 Broadway – a legendary music-business building filled with publishers and songwriters. Presley recorded numerous Blackwell songs beyond the hits for which he’s celebrated.
Blackwell also composed two of Jerry Lee Lewis’s biggest hits, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless.” He also cowrote (with Eddie Cooley) one of the best-known songs of the modern age: the torchy classic “Fever,” which charted high in versions by Little Willie John and Peggy Lee. Again, credits tell a misleading tale, as Blackwell used a pseudonym (John Davenport, his stepfather) to conceal his identity, as it was written for another publishing company. He also wrote “Hey Little Girl” (a hit for Dee Clark) and “Handy Man” (recorded by Jimmy Jones and, later, James Taylor).
Born in Brooklyn, Blackwell learned piano and began writing songs in his early teens. He attracted early notice by winning an amateur night contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He liked both rhythm & blues and country music, claiming that his favorite singer was C&W mainstay Tex Ritter. Before becoming a full-time songwriter, he cut a dozen or so sides in the early Fifties for the RCA Victor and Jay-Dee labels. He had a near-hit with “Daddy Rolling Stone,” which was later covered by the Who. His early works were collected on an album entitled Otis Blackwell: Singing the Blues and have been reissued on various compact discs in the modern era.
By the mid-Fifties, he’d decided to give up performing. “I quit entertaining,” he told writer Tom Russell. “I didn’t dig it. Got more into writing.” Still, his voice exerted an influence, even if it was behind the scenes. It’s been noted that Blackwell’s vocal stylings on demos of songs Presley recorded were followed rather faithfully, leading to his receiving credit as an obvious influence on Presley’s delivery. “At certain tempos, the way Elvis sang was the result of copying Otis’ demos,” observed fellow songwriter and close friend Doc Pomus. Oddly enough, Blackwell and Presley never met.
In 1976, Blackwell recorded a dozen of his best-known numbers with producer Herb Abramson (cofounder of Atlantic Records) for an album entitled These Are My Songs. A compilation, The Very Best of Otis Blackwell, appeared in 2009. A 1994 tribute album, entitled Brace Yourself! A Tribute to Otis Blackwell, included versions of his songs by artists as far-flung as Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Kris Kristofferson, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Ronnie Spector (of the Ronettes), Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker.
Blackwell suffered a stroke in 1991, which left him paralyzed. He died in 2002 of a heart attack.